Mobile Email Formatting Tips

May 26, 2011

2013 update: Smartphones represent 1/3 of all mobile phones, and tablet sales have overtaken laptop and PC sales.   Every year that gap widens.  Almost everyone with an email account reads it on the go for at least part of each day, and some days the only device available is the mobile phone or tablet.  For many decision makers, mobile email is the weapon of choice.  Remember, however, than for every smartphone owner consuming our gorgeous new  multimedia phone messages, there are still as many feature-phone owners who get email mainly as enhanced text or HTML.  The moral: design your email messages to suit all mobile readers if you want good results.   Here are a few considerations.  As usual, I’ve included some resource links at the end of this post.

1.  Header fields (Sender and Subject)

email on smartphone

On the small screen, it’s even more crucial to clearly identify yourself and your relationship/organization in the Sender and Subject field.    Many email preview screens only display header info.  Readers visually scan the first few lines of a message before deciding which messages are worth their time.  It’s the electronic equivalent of sorting your postal mail while standing at the wastebasket.  Ever done that?  Thought so.   Effective Sender and Subject information will vastly improve your open rate.

The Sender field should have a human’s name in it and/or your business name, if you are a business.     Example:  “Jane Doe | XYZ Corp.”   The Subject field gets a succinct headline (<40 characters, ideally) front-loaded to convey the main benefits to the reader.  If you have more than one subject, consider sending a separate message for each, unless you can weave multiple subjects into a single theme to fit that brief 40-character Subject line.  According to Epsilon, who have tested millions of emails for the world’s largest companies, the top factor in improving email open rates is a short, sweet, “front-loaded” subject line – one that has been a/b tested.  Mary Meeker of KPCB states that audiences prefer content that makes them feel Connected, Excited, Curious, Interested and Productive.  Do as many of those as possible in your Sender and Subject lines.

What does “front-loaded” mean?

It means your subject line or sentence leads with an impact statement that clearly states the benefit to your dear reader, whose internal radio is perpetually tuned to WIFM (What’s In it For Me).  Here’s how to / not to:

  • NOT DO: “We are excited to announce that our….”  You just wasted 40 characters and risked being unopened, deleted or spam filtered.
  • DO: “<Member perk> from <your or your bizname>: (describe your member Perk here in 1 or 2 words)”.  Like a news editor, you want an eye-catching headline. This is your one shot at getting and keeping attention.  Milk it.

Avoid gimmicks.  Example: the “re:” gimmick spoof.  The “re:” tag indicates a forwarded message – NOT one originated by you.   Gaming the audience’s inbox in this way is actually a frequent scammer / phishing tactic.  You don’t want that reputation.  ‘nuf said.

2. Top of message body: Text, not Graphics

If you follow these following 3 rules, you’ll stay out of the weeds:  (1) don’t make me think; (2) don’t make me wait; (3) don’t make me work.   It’s not that we’re lazy.  We just don’t often have time.  Save time by not placing graphics in the upper left corner of your message body.   Use that valuable piece of real estate for an impactful text message.  Get to the point quickly.  Help your readers to begin benefiting right away.

Speaking of Graphics:  Users of devices set to text-only who have clicked your juicy headline don’t want to find a blank white box with a little red X in the upper left corner.  Interrupting  busy people’s “flow” or confusing them with guesswork will result in fewer opens, clicks and conversions, and more deletes and unsubscribes.  Best practice:  lead with text, minimize use of graphics, and shrink graphics to button size, thumbnail size, or narrow banner.   If your graphic is so large that no text is visible on-screen or, worse, your Call to Action is not visible in the top field of view, shrink it.  If your graphic is illegible when shrunk to small-screen size, design a new one that works.

3. Navigation and Conversion

Limit navigation complexity.  Use a left-aligned, single column format, not a multi-column newsletter format (unless you’re emailing to a newsletter subscriber list).  Opt for using screen-width-percentage tags rather than absolute pixel width, so your messages format on the fly to fit a myriad of device screens.  Height:  If possible, limit it to just minimal scrolling (max: one additional screen’s worth of content below the visible screen of content).

4. Data Capture

If you include a data capture form, avoid multiple required fields.  Just capture the bare minimum information to advance to the next level in your relationship with the reader.  Do you really need their mailing address if you already have their email address?  If the answer is still yes, then start by asking for just zip code  if you do location-based business.  QR codes are great for this purpose; NFC (near-field communication) is just starting to show up in devices and points of sale.

5.  Call to Action (CTA) links

Support your main topic or offer with both buttons and text links.   Some people prefer to click buttons; others will click text links.  Satisfy both camps.  Be sure your link supports the Subject line of the message.   Clearly state any time-limited offers or timeliness of the message to inject urgency.  Make your action button large enough so it can be reached by the outstretched thumb of those one-handed gadget-slingers.

6. Buttons and Links: Size matters (Placement, too)

Spacing of buttons and links deserves consideration.  Buttons work great on smaller mobile touch screens because they can be larger than text and reduce fat-finger misfires.  Consider separating each text and button link by at least a line of text or equivalent blank space, to help our fat fingers navigate effectively and avoid those annoying misfires that send us to an errant download.  Avoid that common error of placing links in each adjacent item on a bulletized list.  Misfires are annoying.  Rule of finger: skip a line of text / space between links and buttons.

Equally important:  send your recipients to mobile-optimized landing pages.   Mobile-optimized means everything mentioned in this article.  Optimizing your website for mobile may mean providing alternate navigation, especially if your main website menu is of the horizontal drop-down type – another frequent cause of fat-finger misfires.

7. Alt text tags

Many email users set their devices to “images off” to improve download speeds.  If you decide to include a graphic image, note that every graphic element can be easily given a compelling, descriptive “Alt text”  label that will still appear in a text-only message in place of the graphic, to let readers know what they’ll receive if they decide to download a graphic version or select the “display images” option.   Moreover, HTML 5 will let those alt tag fields function as live links – without downloading the graphic element – which is great for busy people who don’t want to pay or wait for graphic images to load onscreen.  Use the <Alt text> tag to help people quickly decide when and what to click.

8. Visual text/graphics balance – the 80/20 rule rides again

At least 80% of your message should be text with text links, and no more than 20% clickable graphics.  This helps make certain your full message gets across quickly even if it’s the text-only or “images off” version, and it ensures fast, successful downloads for people who want the full visual message.  Even 4G mobile download speeds are generally slower than desktop device speeds.  A good acid test is to first compose your email as a text-only version, to be sure that your entire message and action links are visually appealing, tell the complete story, and generate a response.  Once you have tested the text-only  version, consider adding a graphic element or two that visually reinforce the main message and call to action.

9. Social Media Buttons:  Share or Snare?

If you have Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and other complementary accounts that might help readers get to know you better, include those link buttons.    If you opt for social “sharing” buttons, place them prominently alongside content your audience might wish to share.   Caution: while it’s magnanimous to provide social “share’ buttons so viewers can share your email with others, experience has shown that email readers generally would rather get more info themselves to facilitate a decision before they decide to share it.  With this in mind, it is actually more effective to have your social media buttons link to additional information to facilitate buying decisions.   Your own circumstances may vary; it is best to A/B test the social sharing / snaring button to determine which has best effect for your audience.  Above all, don’t “mix” the buttons.  They should either be all “share” or all “snare”, to avoid user confusion.

10. Consider using cascading style sheets (CSS).

CSS can help detect and change the size of image and text to comfortably fit different sized device screens.

11.  Test!  Testing alone gets 82% more revenue!

At Fan Foundry, we have discovered that our lifetime conversion rates exceed industry norms simply because we test our messages.   We have an 82% higher lifetime conversion rate across all client campaigns, based on comparison to performance reports from prominent email marketing software providers like Epsilon, Return Path, Lyris and MailChimp.  Does this mean that until email testing becomes more standard practice, you too can get 82% more revenue from your email marketing simply by testing?  Possibly;  try it! Here’s how.

Send a test email to your own mobile email reader – or as broad a variety of devices and email software as possible – to check for visual appeal and link performance.   Some of the more sophisticated marketing automation software products actually have this testing feature built-in.   Test a different subject line, a different graphic, a different CTA (Call to Action) button, etc.  Send each version to a subset of your target list.  Note the results.  Does one combination yield better conversion results?  After all the hard work you’ve done to create your gorgeous, compelling email outreach campaigns and acquire a faithful audience,  the few minutes spent testing gives your marketing ROI significant lift.   Wouldn’t you like to earn 1.82 times your ordinary revenue?  Well, then, test.  Conversely, if you ignore this step and send an error-laden email, don’t be surprised if people begin to ignore you and your results suffer.  Don’t be that person!  Make it count, grow your audience and build loyalty!

What has your experience been?  Any tips to share?  I’ll add them here and credit you.  Or you can discuss below, or just ask a question.


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